Title: “Welcome to Marwen” (2018)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Steve Carell, Falk Hentschel, Matt O’Leary
Written by: Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen is like no movie I’ve ever seen before. The film could be called many things— “odd,” “fantastical,” and “peculiar” come to mind—but if there is anything at all to be said about it, it is that the world of Marwen is unforgettable. I left the theater unsatisfied and confused, feeling as though I had missed something significant, but the complicated characters and the colorful tones of the film have stayed with me.
Plot-wise, Welcome to Marwen is about one man’s struggle to connect to community—and reality—in the wake of an assault that has left him bruised in both body and mind. Mark Hogencamp (Steve Carrell) wakes up with PTSD after being savagely beaten to within an inch of his life to find that all memory of his past self has vanished, leaving him with nothing except his name and a closet of women’s shoes in an empty apartment. The quintet of assailants, some sporting movie-villain mullets and Nazi tattoos, haunt Hogencamp’s waking and sleeping realities even three years after the attack, at which point the movie begins.
The imaginary town of Marwen—the stage for Hogencamp’s photography project and the center of his fictional reality—is populated by dolls that represent the real-life men and women in his life. However, his personal alter ego, Cap’n Mark Hogie, betrays Hogencamp’s self-imposed isolation by refusing to allow any of the dolls to get close to him. Those who do are inevitably dogged by tragedy. From the squad of Nazi soldiers tracking Hogie’s every move (these represent Hogencamp’s perpetual fear of his five assailants) to Hogie’s personal curse, a female doll named Deja Blue (her hair color mirrors that of the painkillers that keep Hogencamp foggy and unreachable), there is no escape for Hogie from the past that keeps coming back to haunt him.
Marwen toes an often uncomfortable line between serious and campy. The music is enchanting and plays a significant role from the beginning, the colors are vivid and affecting, and the obvious ties between the doll world of Marwen and the real world of Kingston, New York, are fun to recognize. Even the subtle blocking within certain scenes is clever and noteworthy.
However, the cuts can be unintentionally jarring, and the dialogue is often forced (“the essence of dame… I love dames. I collect women’s essence”). Even those parts of the movie that take place in real life feel unrealistic. For example, the new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), is unbelievably accepting of Mark’s oddities and stalker-ish tendencies without question or hesitation. Mark’s breakdown when reality fails to mimic events as they played out in his imagination feels predictable and preventable, as though any one of the townspeople in Kingston should have been concerned enough to try snapping him out of his imaginary world before then. The other women in town even refer to Mark’s doll-versions of them as “me” and “we,” perpetuating his blurring of the line between reality and fiction. The trailers for the film characterize Marwen as “a place can heal,” but it is only when Mark breaks from the delusion and assumes responsibility for his own story that he begins to move beyond his past trauma.
If there is anything to be gained from spending a few hours with Marwen, it is the realization that—for better or worse—not all movies, and not all art, must have a point. Sometimes, the cast and crew are just telling a novel story in an aesthetically pleasing way. The novelty of a film like Marwen could easily go underappreciated, relegated to the realm of being just a hobby project or being too “indie” for a mainstream audience. But as movies like Get Out (2017), the Marvel Avengers franchise, and even James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) have shown, it is entirely possible for one movie to change the game. Whether or not the movie ends up as a box-office bomb, Marwen is likely to spawn a new generation of oddities and inspire creators of all kinds to follow their wackiest ideas to fruition.